Amy Francetic was at a child's birthday party in 2004 when she decided it was time to leave Silicon Valley.
"I was sitting there listening to 6-year-olds talk about IPOs and whose house was bigger and how much a wedding dress cost," she said.
By then, she had traveled the world, making money for some of Silicon Valley's most brilliant innovators and investors. She had been a photographer, a toymaker and a video game producer; a mother, a wife and a CEO.
"I said to my husband, 'Jason, if our 6-year-old is talking about an IPO and the cost of a wedding dress, we have failed as parents,' " Francetic said.
That's how, after about 20 years in California, Francetic and her husband, Jason Rubinstein, made the difficult decision to escape the culture of the Valley and move back to the Midwest with their two young girls.
"It was a life choice," she said. "It wasn't a career choice."
Now, at 45, her mission is to change the world -- preferably within 10 years.
As executive director of Clean Energy Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to accelerating the development of clean-energy businesses in the Midwest, she works with a board of Chicago's most powerful and wealthy investors -- Nicholas Pritzker, Michael Polsky and Paula Crown among them.
"When you are a billionaire, you can pick and choose what you want to do," she said. "So they want to do stuff that matters."
In returning to the Midwest, Francetic wanted to apply the lessons she had learned in Silicon Valley to a broader policy problem.
"We think there's a problem when you're so dependent on hostile countries for your energy -- the lifeblood of your industry and your way of life," she said. "We have the technology to become energy independent. It exists today. But it's going to take investment. The Midwest can be a leader in that."
She'll know the goal has been accomplished when Clean Energy Trust no longer needs to do the work it's doing; when scientists are busy creating companies and investors are rolling their profits into an ever-longer list of them.
"If we're really good at it" she said, "we'll be extinct in 10 years."
'Something more fun'
Like all interesting stories, Francetic's past is about someone who was on a straight path then turned, who stumbled but discovered, who fell but got up.
If Francetic hadn't done those things, she'd be a lawyer in Washington instead of at the helm of one of the Midwest's most powerful engines for clean-energy technology.
That was her plan when she left her middle-class family in Racine, Wis., to major in political science and psychology at Stanford University on a scholarship. But a semester as an intern at the National Organization for Women Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Georgetown University Law Center made her change direction.
"I wanted something more fun," she said. "I went back to school, I took this photography class and I loved it. I knew I wanted to do something more creative."
Francetic dived into documentary photography and filmmaking. After college, she said, "I decided I wanted to go to Africa with my camera."
Although, ultimately, Francetic's sole credit in the Internet Movie Database would be for a video game version of Candy Land, a five-week experience in Ghana provided her first experience with entrepreneurship in action. A group of women in a small farming village had purchased palm oil processing equipment using a small grant and created products to sell in the marketplace.
"It was pretty much economically the foundation of this village of maybe 100 people," she said.
Her documentary experience helped her snag her first professional job, as an assistant producer of video games at Electronic Arts in Silicon Valley, working on Sesame Street-themed games for children.
"You did all the crummy work that the producers didn't want to do: from game testing to reading design documents to managing her calendar -- you name it," she said.
From there, she moved to toy company Hasbro, which was starting a children's educational software division in Palo Alto, Calif. Her boss, Kathy Schlein, an irreverent, smart and competitive woman, would soon become one of Francetic's dear friends and mentors.
Schlein knew she wanted to hire Francetic within minutes.
"I thought, 'This person has the intelligence, the smarts, the gumption, the balls to do this job,' " Schlein said. "We had to work with all these crazy people, from the software developers who were wing nuts to LA writers, and never get mired in a formulaic way of thinking."
If Francetic was looking for fun, she had found it. Schlein was "always on the phone fighting for money" with her bosses in Rhode Island. The office was late nights, pizza parties and Nerf gun wars. Children were constantly in and out of the office testing games.
"How bad can life be when you get to design the first interactive software for Mr. Potato Head?" said Schlein, who runs her family winery and is involved in several technology consulting ventures. "You were just hoping that nobody swallowed any small parts or choked."
More importantly, Schlein gave Francetic the room and the network she needed to grow, introducing her to tech giants including Apple's Steve Jobs.
"Amy has insatiable curiosity," Schlein said, "intellectual curiosity, and she really understands the marriage between creativity and business. Most people don't have that."
Eventually, Hasbro decided to fold the interactive division of its business into its corporate headquarters in Rhode Island. Schlein, Francetic and the other employees took severance packages rather than move.
"We were having too much fun in Silicon Valley," Francetic said. "All this stuff was starting up. It was really alive."
There, before age 30, Francetic created a business called Zowie, which used radio frequency identification technology that, years before Wii, allowed children to play with a toy while their actions were transmitted to a virtual world on their computer screen.
She hired several of her former Hasbro co-workers and spun the Zowie business out of Interval. Suddenly, she was co-founder and CEO of her own company, traveling back and forth to Asia to deal with manufacturing issues and negotiating pricing.
"It was really freaking hard," Francetic said. "I tell people today -- don't do all that stuff. Figure out the piece you can do better than anybody, work with other folks who can do all that other stuff, because it's really hard. It almost killed us."
Meanwhile, Silicon Valley's tech bubble was bursting. And Francetic was about to get married. The honeymoon to Australia and New Zealand was already planned.
"She said to me, 'I'm sorry, dear, we've got to sell the business right now, and I've got to deal with that,' " said her husband, who is general manager in charge of Coinstar Inc.-owned Redbox's new ticketing venture, Redbox Tickets (this sentence as published has been corrected in this text).
Seeking a buyer for Zowie, she set her sights on Lego, which had never purchased a company. To seal the deal she also had to persuade Allen, her majority shareholder, to sell the company.
They pushed back the wedding six months, setting the date for Jan. 1, 2000, "just to tempt fate," Rubinstein said with a laugh, referring to their Y2K wedding date, when some feared a technology glitch would freeze the world's computers.
Amid all the others she needed to convince in the deal, "I was the easy sell," Rubinstein said of their upended plans.
Changing the world
By the early 2000s, Francetic was exhausted. She wanted to have children, and the timing was right. She had sold the business, negotiated an exit and ushered her team into Lego. Everything was in place.
But as Dar Williams sang, sometimes life gives us lessons sent in ridiculous packaging. At a doctor's visit, she mentioned a strange lump near her sternum. It turned out to be an unusual cancer.
Ten years later, Francetic is cancer-free and only rarely thinks about that "dark period" of her life. But it would affect her choices from that moment onward.
"She came to the realization life can be short," Rubinstein said. "Make the best decisions."
After her first child, Francetic decided she wanted to make a difference, to delve deeper into the science of technology, to find the gems in America's research labs that were waiting to come out.
During her last year and a half in Silicon Valley, and for a couple of years after moving to the Midwest, Francetic worked for the Stanford Research Institute (SRI International), working with scientists to commercialize everything from the early version of what would become Siri (the voice-recognition personal assistant technology on the iPhone) to fuel cells, which produce electricity in cells from a chemical reaction.
In Chicago, she worked part time, and from home, while her children were young before she joined MVC Capital Inc., a middle-market private equity fund, where she learned that making money and changing the world could go hand in hand.
"I would tell the people who worked for me, 'Everyone who comes in here with an idea thinks they're going to change the world. Your job is to find the ones who will,' " said Warren Holtsberg, co-head and member of the board of directors at MVC Capital in Chicago.
While Francetic dreams big, ultimately, Holtsberg said, her success comes from the fact she's a realist. About 7 of 10 venture investments will fail completely, he said, and of the three that succeed, only one will be wildly successful.
"Technology has to meet a need and has to be something that people will buy and put to work," Holtsberg said. "Amy has got that inquisitiveness. She keeps looking. If you asked her, 'Are you there yet?' she'd say, 'No, not yet.' "
At MVC, Francetic was given time to start a venture called Invention Bridge, an advisory firm working to commercialize science-based research that would eventually lead her to meet Pritzker and Polsky.
At that time, Pritzker, a Tesla Motors investor, had been mulling the state of the nation's energy supply. He saw potential to fix that problem in the Midwest, where more than $1 billion in federal grants flows to Midwestern labs. But technology wasn't being commercialized fast enough.
"It's lonely building any business, especially in Chicago," said Tim Stojka, CEO and co-founder of Agentis, an energy efficiency technology firm that receives free advice and mentorship from Clean Energy Trust. "The landscape is changing, but building a technology is very hard, as is gaining access to capital. Clean Energy Trust is really about building an ecosystem."
Pritzker said it took him and Polsky "literally about a minute" to be convinced Francetic should help create, develop and lead what would eventually become Clean Energy Trust.
"I've seen her deal with governmental agencies, with educational institutions, with small entrepreneurs, with major corporations, and in each of those contexts be able to communicate ideas and get people onboard," he said.
For Francetic, it all made sense. At Invention Bridge, she had quickly embedded herself into Midwestern labs and universities, working across several tech sectors, including energy.
"I was motivated by innovation," she said. "I said to my husband, 'If I'm going to work, if I'm not going to be with my girls, I have to do something that matters.' "
She agreed to work with her staff at Invention Bridge as well as with Polsky, Pritzker and the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce for six months to figure out how to build an entity that would bring together everyone from Argonne National Laboratory scientists and tech firms to policymakers and billionaire investors. In April 2010, after settling on the idea of a nonprofit, Polsky and Pritzker financed Clean Energy Trust along with other board members. Francetic agreed to work there full time.
Clean Energy Trust is hosting its third Clean Energy Challenge, which offers more than $300,000 in cash prizes to Midwest researchers, students and entrepreneurs with "transformative" clean-energy business ideas. The trust also provides mentoring and other services to clean-tech entrepreneurs.
Last week, the company hosted events bringing together entrepreneurs in biofuels with the Midwest's biggest names in aerospace, Boeing Co. and United Airlines, to figure out how to get Midwest-grown bio-based jet fuels into Midwest-grown airplanes.
"We tell our scientists and young companies, you need to get input from those people very early," Francetic said. "You can't just throw something up on the Web, have people react to it and then switch it around. You've got to talk to the utility companies, United Airlines, Honeywell, Caterpillar, Johnson Controls -- you've got to talk to those companies and get input from them. If you're going to make batteries, you've got to talk to Dow and LG. You need to know what their constraints are and not give away your science before it's ready."
Francetic said she is working as hard as she ever did at a private company, helping connect innovators and the people who can finance their ideas.
"It's hard, but it's important too, especially now. We're under fire. We have lousy policy in the U.S.," she said. "But this is about improving the quality of life for everybody. You do have to invest in this; it is not free. You have to find a way."
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Executive director, Clean Energy Trust
Mission: To accelerate the development of Midwest clean-energy businesses.
Raised: Racine, Wis. Lives in Lake Forest with husband Jason Rubinstein and daughters Lucy, 9, and Sydney, 8.
Education: Bachelor's degree in psychology and political science from Stanford University, where she also ran varsity track.
How she met her husband: He was trying to negotiate the Internet rights for Monopoly from Francetic at Hasbro. "She looked at me with this tremendous smile and she said, 'I'm sorry, Jason, but the Monopoly licensing isn't going to happen.' It didn't matter who I knew politically or that I knew the vice chairman of Hasbro. It was, 'You're stuck with me, and you're not getting the license.' "
Organizations/boards: Chicago Council on Global Affairs Emerging Leaders; Illinois Institute of Technology Knapp Entrepreneurship Center; Museum of Science and Industry Energy Advisory Committee; Northwestern University NUvention Energy Advisory Board.
Reading: "The Secret Garden" by Frances Hodgson Burnett, with daughter Lucy.